Any North Sea hydro-carbons seep has the potential to be extremely dangerous – in the case of the leaking well at Total’s hugely important Elgin-Franklin, an explosion could prove devastating.
The fact that Shell has decided to all but shut down the neighbouring Shearwater field because of worries over the fast growing Elgin-Franklin gas cloud means we now have a crisis the likes of which has never been encountered at any time in the history of the North Sea.
Both Elgin-Franklin and Shearwater are what is known in the trade as high pressure/high temperature (HPHT) fields. What they produce is highly volatile and hugely valuable to the UK economy.
Between them, these sisters account for more than 10% of our domestic gas and a significant chunk of ultra-light oil (condensate) production.
Both Elgin-Franklin and Shearwater were right at the edge of oil and gas development technology when conceived, designed and built in the 1990s. In those pre-Total merger days it was Elf that was the real trail-blazer.
I was among the first journalists to be given a detailed briefing on the hopes for Elgin-Franklin.
It was a project like no other; for that matter so too was Shearwater.
But the Shell development tended to live in the shadow of its French-led neighbour.
Elf’s project leader, Joel Fort, was frank: there was little in the way of a prior industry track record in developing such dangerous fields.
He said it would be necessary to drill all production wells prior to start-up as it might not be possible to drill any more after that.
Normally when a field is opened up, enough wells are drilled to get things going, then the operator drills more as required.
Mr Fort said it would be necessary to build the wells and process systems on the Elgin-Franklin platform complex of ultra-high-grade steels, alloys and other materials.
While there was a lot of sharing with Shell as it set about Shearwater, the latter took a different approach to well construction and experienced serious problems prior to start-up, to the point that a lot of money had to be spent on remedial work.
Elgin-Franklin and Shearwater were frontier projects from day one and they still are. Even something as apparently simple as plugging and abandoning a well is fraught with extra difficulties.
The gas leak tells us clearly that Total has to go back to the drawing board.
As for getting back aboard Elgin-Franklin, this was the first challenge; a situation that has never been encountered before.
Meanwhile, we have two large, highly dangerous and economically critical North Sea fields out of action. No one knows how long for. Could it be weeks, months, even longer?
Might this shutdown lead to a gas price shock? Britain is heavy reliant on imports to make up the shortfall in domestic supplies and most of that gas comes from Norway.
With summer coming on at least demand pressure will ease a little — but come the autumn it will be a different story.